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dowlais ironworks

Painting of the Dowlais ironworks near Merthyr, by George Childs. Source: Wikipedia

This year's Merthyr Rising Festival reminded us that solidarity and strength are our allies, writes Tanya Skinner

Imagine the scene, its 1831 and some 7000– 10000 workers are marching through the streets of Merthyr Tydfil. The red flag is flying and they are being led by Lewsyn yr Heliwr (also known as Lewis Lewis). Their goal? To demand a decrease in the price of bread and an increase in their wages.

For four days magistrates and Ironmasters were under siege and the workers effectively controlled Merthyr. The people of Merthyr had risen up against the iron masters and magistrates who controlled the town.

The siege, although eventually suppressed demonstrated a shared belief in unity and standing up for justice. The very rights and liberties that we often take for granted today didn’t happen by accident, they happened because people came together and fought for equality not just in the case of the Merthyr Rising but throughout our history.

In 1831 workers could be quickly dismissed and were never certain of work from one day to the next. People were paid ‘truck’ meaning they were paid in tokens instead of cash and had to redeem them at the factory shop. Goods here were often more expensive making it easier to accumulate debt. There were frequent wage reductions, ruthless collections of debts and general unemployment. At the time the average life expectancy for a man living in Wales would have been around 40, the standard of living combined with the perilous working conditions meant that this could be as low as 22 for the poorest people living in Merthyr at the time.

Fast forward to 2016 and the recent local elections, Merthyr had one of the lowest turn outs for voting in the whole of Wales. The figures suggest a sense of apathy that I believe our ancestors would struggle to understand, many of whom wouldn’t have even had the right to vote and fought desperately for, sometimes with fatal consequences for the very thing that over 60% of us failed to do at the recent elections. The sense of apathy might be more understandable if we were living in a time that was without struggle but we face our own range of very real issues today. It is hard not to see some similarities between the austerity ravaged Wales of today and the poverty experienced in 1831.

Featuring in the bottom fifth of the WIMD (Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation) unemployment and poverty are terms that have become synonymous with Merthyr. The average life expectancy of a man in the UK is 75, in Merthyr it is estimated that men will live on average 10 years less.

The introduction of zero hour contracts can mean that as in 1831 people can’t be certain of work, the poorest people in Merthyr are once again vulnerable to the dangers of debt with a variety of unscrupulous loan sharks charging extortionate interest rates. This can often mean that once in debt people struggle to get out and are then faced with the trauma of debt collectors, court and sometimes even prison. These same people are the ones who are paying the most expensive rates for their gas and electricity in the form of pre-payment meters. 53% live in households where there is someone with a long term illness or disability and cuts to social services budgets can often mean that family are carrying the lion share of caring responsibilities.

Introduction of Mandatory work activity schemes mean that people are working up to 30 hours a week in order to receive their benefits, meaning a potential hourly rate of approximately £2.00 per hour. Combine this with recent employment law reforms that are slowly eroding the very worker’s rights that were so hard won. Even the more financially well off are being hit. Year on year increase in council tax coupled with year on year cuts to frontline services are making many wonder “what are we paying for?” and with another 4 years of planned cuts in the pipeline it makes you wonder what will be left?

If you compare 1831 to 2016 it is evident that there are still people living in abject poverty, there are still people being exploited, there are still people in positions of power, making decisions that keep people down and there is still injustice and inequality.

We are known for having fire in our bellies and a song in our heart, we are born from men who stood, fought and died for our rights, men who marched from Merthyr to London (1927) and again fought long and hard during the Miner’s strike. Who else can boast a magnificent red dragon as the emblem on their national flag? If our local authority and our government are not standing up and challenging austerity then we have to.

This year saw the return of the Merthyr Rising Festival, a festival that not only celebrates and commemorates our fallen workers but offers an opportunity to show the strength and resistance we are capable of in our local community. Sponsored by Unison and arranged by a small team of locals the festival saw a whole host of political debates, guest speakers and performers including John Rees, Mark Thomas, John Jewell, The Artist Taxi Driver and Cass Pennant.

In its third year and with over 1000 tickets sold the festival continues to go from strength to strength. The festival included 2 days of live bands, with ‘The Farm’ as headliners, art displays, theatre shows and an historical tour of Merthyr and its rich heritage. A trade union march through the streets to wrap up the event seemed a fitting end to a very successful weekend.

Organisers Anthony Bunko, Lyn Williams and Ian Jenkins worked tirelessly to organise the event and were incredibly pleased to see that it continues to gain popularity. Ian Jenkins said “the highlights for me were the fascinating talk by John Rees, the EU debate and the trade union march, all of which showed that Merthyr Rising can continue to be a platform for ideas and debate as well as on opportunity to show the strength of resistance in our communities to neoliberalism, austerity and the continuing waging of aggressive war by NATO. It was great to see such a big crowd turn up and the feedback has been superb.”

The Rising Festival reminds us that solidarity and strength are our allies, let’s not be ignorant and walk blindly through our lives anymore. Let us start believing again and channel our inner dragon. “Y DDRAIG GOCH DDYRY CYCHWYN”

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